The National Endowment for the Arts, the agency responsible for distributing federal grant money to ostensibly worthy art projects, has a slogan: “A great nation deserves great art.” This makes me wonder what horrible thing did we do to deserve Jackson Pollack.
For those unfamiliar with Pollack’s work, he was a painter during the middle of the 20th century who specialized in something called Abstract Expressionism… which means that his paintings tended to resemble a cross between a Rorschach test, a Magic Eye poster, and an explosion in a paint factory. However, that didn’t stop one of his contemporaries from hailing his work as the “culmination of the Western artistic tradition.” His paintings are consequently considered immensely–and inexplicably–valuable.
It’s hard to enter into a discussion of Pollack’s work without dragging up all the usual difficult questions about art: What’s good art? What’s bad art? Who gets to decide? How do you decide? And, most importantly to the NEA, how do you persuade Congress to keep providing grant money for it when it’s so hard to tell the difference between the painting and the drop cloth?
Normally, when you want somebody to invest in something, you make a business case. That is, you present the investment you need and describe the potential return to would-be investors. When we’re talking about an investment in art, though, things get a bit difficult. How do you place an objective dollar value on something as subjective as art?
That’s not to say it’s impossible. There was one city which put up a large, abstract sculpture in a prominent location. The sculpture was so abstract and so mesmerizing that tourists would come and stare at it for long periods of time…giving the locals plenty of opportunity to mug them.
However, such instances in which art lends itself to a definitive monetary value tend to be rare–and perhaps it’s just as well. But how are we supposed to figure out how much art is really worth?
Fortunately, thanks to new research from the University of Punxsutawney’s College of Economics and Modern Art, we’re a little closer to an answer. Now there’s a bit of a mystery as to why the University of Punxsutawney would put its Economics and Modern Art departments into a single college. I’m sure rumors that they were trying to isolate the two most depressing fields in the curriculum are a gross distortion of actual events. Some people said that if anyone ought to be merged with the Economics department, it ought to be the Literature department, whose members are already good at analyzing the flow of red ink… or read ink, at any rate. It’s the unread ink that typically gives them trouble.
Despite all the criticisms, though, the merger has produced some interesting synergies, including this research on the value of art that I was going to described. In short, the College identified three ways that even lousy art can be shown to provide a net public benefit.
The first approach is what we might call the cat-toy approach. Let’s face it: the modern domesticated cat has a rather boring existence, and in order for it to get the proper amount of physical and intellectual exercise, it needs a toy of some sort to stimulate it. And just as the cat probably has no sentimental attachment to the toy itself–or much of anything else for that matter–so modern art can provide the same sort of stimulus to relieve the boredom of our everyday lives in spite of being rather unattractive itself. In fact, the more horrible it is, the more effective it is at getting the heart pumping and the mind racing, as we try to figure out how to deal with it. I understand that exposure to a sufficiently hideous piece of art can have the same physiological benefit as twenty minutes on a stationary bicycle.
The second approach is what’s known as the schadenfreude approach. I’m sure you’ve noticed the phenomenon that, when you’re going through an art gallery or sculpture garden and you see something absolutely hideous or pointless, you may find yourself thinking: “They call that art? Even I could do better than that!” Well, that brief moment of self-validation must be worth something. Now, take that benefit and multiply it across the population of a city, or the sum of people who are likely to encounter that particular piece of art, and you’ve got a net uplift that a small army of psychotherapists wouldn’t be able to duplicate. A large army of psychotherapists might do so, but they’d probably be more expensive than the art.
The last approach is what we’ll call the “least harm” approach. In this case, art serves as a vital receptacle for people who might cause terrible problems if they chose a more traditional career path. For example, we were talking earlier about Jackson Pollack. Suppose that instead of becoming a famous if defective painter, he’d ended up becoming the person who’s supposed to paint the stripes on the highway lanes. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue?
Or suppose Salvadore Dali had become a watchmaker.
Or imagine what Claude Monet might have been like as an opthomologist.
Or M. C. Escher as an architect….
So there we have it: three ways in which even lousy art can provide a benefit to the public. Sadly, we still haven’t been able to place a definite dollar amount on those benefits. The University is still planning on working on it; I understand at this point they’re just waiting for a grant.